Theresa May has declared that final agreement on Brexit is “within our grasp” following a breakthrough on future relations between the UK and EU.
Speaking outside 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister said the joint UK/EU declaration on post-Brexit is “the right plan for the UK”.
She later told the House of Commons that the deal held out the prospect of a zero-tariff free trade area with the EU of a kind the bloc had never offered to any other country.
And she said: “The British people want Brexit to be settled, they want a good deal that sets us on a course for a brighter future, and they want us to come together as a country and to move on to focus on the big issues at home, like our NHS.
“The deal that will enable us to do this is now within our grasp. In these crucial 72 hours ahead, I will do everything possible to deliver it for the British people.”
But she won a bruising reception from MPs, who have warned they will vote down her deal in the crucial Commons debate expected early next month.
Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson urged her to “junk” her backstop plan for keeping the Irish border open, which he said “makes a nonsense of Brexit”.
Brexit-backing ex-Cabinet minister Priti Patel branded the deal “a costly surrender by the UK Government”, while the Leave-supporting MP for South-East Cornwall, Sheryll Murray, called it “a betrayal of Brexit” and Marcus Fysh (Yeovil) said it was “toxic”.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told the Commons that Mrs May had returned from Brussels with “26 pages of waffle”.
“It represents the worst of all worlds, no say over the rules that will continue to apply and no certainty to the future,” he said.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the new text amounted to “lots of unicorns taking the place of facts about the future relationship”.
As Mrs May addressed MPs, it emerged that a post-Brexit transition period – during which the UK will continue to observe EU laws while having no say in them – could be extended beyond the scheduled date of the next general election in June 2022.
A provision in the UK’s withdrawal agreement allowing a one-off extension from December 31 2020 to “December 20XX” was amended to read “for up to one or two years”.
This takes the last possible date for the UK to leave transition to December 31 2022, six months after the expected election date and six and a half years after the 2016 referendum.
The 26-page draft political declaration was agreed in principle on Thursday morning by negotiators who worked through the night on new directions issued by Mrs May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker when they met the previous evening.
It cleared the way for a Brussels summit on Sunday, at which leaders of the remaining 27 EU states are expected to give their stamp of approval to both the future framework and a separate withdrawal agreement setting out the terms of the UK’s departure.
The new text calls for an “ambitious, broad, deep and flexible partnership” between the EU and the UK in areas like trade, security and defence, possibly in the form of a Ukraine-style Association Agreement.
It confirms the UK’s right to develop an independent trade policy and end the free movement of EU nationals and leaves open the possibility of using technological solutions to keep the Irish border open after Brexit.
But elements which infuriated Brexiteers included:
– Plans for a “free trade area, combining deep regulatory and customs co-operation”, building and improving on the “single customs territory” provided for in the withdrawal agreement;
– Provisions to ensure a “level playing field” on business competition, which could cover areas including state aid, workplace and environmental protections, climate change laws and tax;
– A role for the European Court of Justice in providing “binding” rulings on the interpretation of EU law in any disputes between the two sides.
Aides said that Mrs May received “strong support” from Cabinet ministers in a conference before addressing the Commons.
Speaking outside Number 10, she said: “This is the right deal for the UK. It delivers on the vote of the referendum, it brings back control of our borders, our money and our laws and it does so while protecting jobs, protecting our security and protecting the integrity of the United Kingdom.”
Confirming that she would return to Brussels on Saturday for further talks with Mr Juncker, she added: “The British people want this to be settled, they want a good deal that sets us on course for a brighter future.
“That deal is within our grasp and I am determined to deliver on it.”
Downing Street has always stressed that the 585-page legally binding withdrawal agreement setting out the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU – including a “divorce bill” estimated at £39 billion – can only be finalised alongside the shorter declaration setting out the two sides’ aspirations for their future relations.
Just read Political Declaration. Lots of unicorns taking the place of facts about the future relationship. Fair play to the EU for pushing it as far as possible…but it adds up to a blindfold Brexit. Difficult issues unresolved – so extended transition/backstop almost certain.
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) November 22, 2018
It remains unclear whether further negotiation will be needed on Sunday or whether the summit will be a simple rubber-stamping exercise.
The PM has faced a strong pushback from Spain over the status of Gibraltar, while France is understood to have sought amendments to wording on fishing rights in UK waters.